I am only one,
But still I am one.
I cannot do everything,
But still I can do something;
And because I cannot do everything
I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.
by Edward Everett Hale
Feral Cats and How to Help Them
by Margaret Schill
The general definition of a feral cat is a cat who is unsocialized to humans. The technical definition is a cat that was born and reared without human contact. Some feral cats are so far removed from human contact, that they are rarely seen and are extremely fearful of humans. Others may have been born near humans, so tolerate their presence as long as humans maintain a certain distance. Some cats referred to as feral cats are actually abandoned or lost pets who may behave fearfully of humans, but once trust is gained, behave once again like the tame house pets they truly are.
Stray/homeless/feral cats are often malnourished from lack of available food, and get worms from either eating infected rodents, or from fleas. Irritating ear mites are a common thing to be suffered, as are fleas. Some things they eat out of desperation are so spoiled they make the cat sick. If they get an illness, they have to suffer through it until it passes (if it does), not having a caring human to get them medical treatment. They have to live out in terrible weather, not having the luxury to stay in a warm, dry cozy place in bad weather, still having to venture out from whatever shelter they found to find food no matter the weather or temperature. They get into fights with other animals. Wounds become infected. They don't get to have a long, peaceful, comfortable sleep as they always have to be on the ready to jump up and run off at any sound which could mean danger is approaching. Some wake up to being killed by car engines when that seemingly safe sheltered area up in the hood of a car suddenly "comes to life", ending that of the cat.
It doesn't have to be that way. If everyone spayed/neutered their pets, and didn't just dump pets on the streets when they moved or didn't want to bother with them anymore, there would not be thousands of homeless cats on the streets, such as the wary mother cat above and the other cats on this page.
The Importance of Spay and Neuter
Feral mother cat with kittens. Photo courtesy of Alisha.
One irresponsible person putting an intact female out on the streets is directly responsible for dozens and dozens of homeless cats. If some caring person finds, takes in (or traps the cat if it is untamed), and has the female spayed before she can procreate, that will help reduce the number of stray cats on the streets. There are people who do try to get as many stray cats neutered as they can, but there are not enough people doing it, and there are so many cats.
Some people hold off on getting their pet cats spayed or neutered, waiting too long! The cat then is let out, or sneaks outside, mates and gets pregnant, of if a male, gets an intact stray female pregnant. Female cats need to be spayed by a minimum of 6 months old, but preferably by 5 months of age as some females do go into heat (estrus) at 5 months old and can get pregnant when still a kitten. Male cats should be neutered by 6 months of age. Even if you think you can keep your cat indoors, a cat in heat will try hard to get out to mate. Intact males always want to get out to mate. They eventually do get out, even if you tried to keep them in. The hormonal drive to mate is extremely powerful!
A pregnant house cat that gets outside near her delivery date will often have her kittens outdoors in a hidden area. By the time the location of the kittens are discovered, the kittens may be partly feral. If so, they can be tamed, but if they are not located, they will join the ranks of stray, feral cats and will go on to procreate, adding to the feral cat population.
Low Cost Spay and Neuter
Most cities in the United States have a low cost spay/neuter clinic, which one can locate in the telephone directory "yellow pages". Some areas even have special free spay/neuter days at certain times during the year for feral cats. Check with your local veterinarian office or animal shelter to find out if they have a special low cost day for spaying/neutering. Some places give the cats a free rabies shot along with the spay/neuter.
Listings of low cost spay/neuter clinics for most all the states in the US http://www.lovethatcat.com/spayneuter.html
New York City ASPCA mobile clinic offers low cost spay/neuter and rabies vaccinations to pet owners on public assistance who live in New York City's five boroughs. A fully-equipped mobile veterinary clinic will travel directly to your neighborhood! This service is provided free for low income pet owners in New York City's five boroughs with proof of public assistance such as Welfare, Medicaid, Medicare, SSI, Disability, Food Stamps, or Public Housing.
NeuterSpay.org provides an up to date searchable database of USA Nationwide low cost or free spay and neuter resources for pets and feral cats.
PetSmart Charities, Inc. and ASPCA Low-Cost Spay/Neuter Database:
Ways to Help Homeless Cats
Try to Determine if the Cat is a Lost Pet
First, make a real effort to determine if the cat might be a lost pet. Not all cats who run away when you first approach them are feral. Many lost or abandoned pets will run at first when a human they don't know comes towards them.
If it seems that a cat you have seen around recently may be a lost pet, put up flyers around town, and look for flyers and notices about lost cats. Even if you don't catch the cat yourself, an owner of a lost cat will have more ideas of where to look. Many lost cats wind up far from home. But if you can catch the cat, that's even better and the best thing to do IF the cat acts tame, so the cat can be reunited with a owner who may respond to your signs. (Though, take great care trying to touch an unknown cat; even extremely tame cats will scratch or bite when very frightened.)
A lost or dumped pet cat is even less equipped to make if for long on the streets than those born "wild", being a more compelling reason to take in a tame cat and either keeping it or finding it a new home. Cats born and raised in a home, with all their needs met by humans, don't know how to survive on their own outdoors.
Help Care for a Colony of Homeless Cats
Feral cat feeding station. Photo courtesy of Alicia.
Feral cats sometimes live in friendly groups (except when unneutered males are competing for mates). In nature, cats do form bonds with some certain other cats, such as relatives or other cats with whom they had played and grew up with as kittens when their mothers had nested near one another. Such a group is often referred to as a "colony".
A managed feral cat colony is a group of feral cats that are being supervised and taken care of by a caretaker. A colony caretaker feeds the cats at designated "feeding stations", and sometimes gets involved with trapping cats to get them spayed or neutered, or receive vet care for injuries. Feral cats do need food supplied by humans, especially in city areas.
The following sites give information on caring for and managing feral/homeless cat colonies.
Ant free food bowlsAnts getting into food left outdoors for feral and stray cats is a problem. There are ant free pet bowls available for purchase. Or, one can set a food bowl in a pie pan full of water. However, if the cats wind up pushing the food bowl against the edge of the pie pan, ants wind up with a dry pathway to the food, so purchasing an bowl designed to keep out ants is best.
You can buy or build shelters for homeless cats. Small dog houses make good shelters. Outdoor houses or shelters need some sort of insulation and should be raised up off the ground, perhaps with some cement blocks or bricks. During heavy rains, puddles can form where you didn't think they would. If a wooden shelter, being elevated off the ground prevents the wood from rotting. Insulation helps not only to protect from cold, but also from heat. You can buy pre-insulated shelters, or you can insulate them yourself.
See our page on Outdoor Cat Houses for more information, including links to build or buy outdoor cat shelters.
Trap, Neuter and Release (TNR)
Feral cat in trap. Photo courtesy of Michelle.
Help with trapping cats to get them neutered/spayed.
Feral cats (those "wild" cats never touched by humans or cats having been on the streets so long they have become so mistrustful again) can be trapped in a humane trap such as the Havahart brand (http://www.havahart.com), neutered and released. Feral or stray cats should be released back into the same area from which they were trapped, since they won't know where there is safe shelter and food in a strange area. In addition, since cats are territorial, dumping a cat into a new area may invite attacks on the cat by the resident cats who are already competing with each other for resources.
It does take special planning, knowledge and precautions to trap cats. Actual feral cats react with "wild" instincts and can be very dangerous to handle, so you must guard against getting bitten. Cat bites can become seriously infected, even if you wash them promptly. All cat bites require a doctor visit and antibiotics. Wear thick gloves when moving traps with a feral cat inside, preferably gauntlet style gloves to also protect your wrists. The cut and puncture resistant gloves by HEXARMOR would be good.
Neutering or spaying feral cats will help stop the cycle of more and more feral cats being born. It also helps the existing feral cats live better lives, since the males will no longer get into mating fights where they can get infected injuries or acquire diseases spread through bites, and the females will no longer wear out phyisically due to bearing and nursing litter after litter of kittens for years.
Note that not all vets will work with feral cats, so be sure to find out first what vet to take a feral cat to. Be sure to tell the vet to use dissolvable sutures so you won't need to catch the cat again for a vet visit to remove sutures.
NEVER LEAVE A TRAP UNATTENDED!
Different types of traps are available. Be sure to not get a trap too small, as some male cats are very large. In addition, consider that the cat will need to stay in the trap for many hours, waiting to be taken to the vet, and then for several hours afterwards to recover from the surgery, so there needs to be room for the cat to turn around. Those sold as for racoons are a good size for adult cats.
Havahart 1085 Easy Set Cage Style Animal Live Trap Good for animals such as raccoons, woodchucks, small dogs, stray cats and armadillos. Features one spring loaded door, a solid top and an easy setting method! This new Easy Set trap can be set with one hand and has a safe release mechanism located on top of the trap, limiting the user's interaction with the animal to be released. 32" long x 10" x 12".
Help Tame Feral Kittens
Wary feral 7 week old kitten. He was lucky to have been caught and tamed to humans, and now is a loved, social pet.
Feral kittens caught and taken in prior to their being about 8 weeks old have a very good chance of being tamed to the point of becoming people friendly lap cats, even though they start out as terrified hissing little things. It might only take about a month or two to tame down feral kittens 8 weeks old or less. Kittens older than that do indeed have the potential to be tamed down to respond like typical pet house cats, but the older the feral kitten is, the longer it will take.
Information and instructions about taming feral kittens can be found at:
Information on taming both feral kittens and adult cats is at http://muttcats.com/articles/taming_ferals.htm#adults
Some adult feral cats can also be tamed, but if they did not have human contact as little kittens, will never be as social to humans as cats handled by humans as young kittens. Taming an adult feral cat is a long, slow process and is often not successful if it is a "hard core" feral cat. Of course, one would have no idea if a homeless cat had had any human contact previously until one tries working with the cat. Some seemingly feral cats are surprising in how they revert back to acting like the pet cats they must have been early in their lives, whereas others clearly are so wild and mistrustful of humans that they are best left outside, after having been neutered. Trying to tame a feral adult cat takes special precautions, since they will bite in fear if they are cornered and feel threatened. Cat bites can be very serious! Wear cut and puncture resistant gloves at first, to protect yourself from bites. Read all you can about taming feral cats before trying to work with a feral/ feral-like adult cat.
Information about taming adult feral cats can be found at:
http://muttcats.com/articles/taming_ferals.htm#adults (page also has information on taming feral kittens).
High in protein and fat to ensure proper kitten growth and development. Contains several vitamins and minerals and also contains L-arginine to prevent cataracts in newborns; powdered form mixes with water.
Volunteer at your area shelter or humane society
The homeless cats turned in to shelters need people to help care for them. You can even foster orphan kittens in your home, to care for and socialize them so they can become pet house cats. It's a sweet, pleasant experience, though is not for people who work full-time, since infants under 6 weeks of age need to eat every 4-6 hours and many need to be bottle fed. Shelters or rescue groups will often provide you with the needed supplies to care for the infant orphans, and will pay for any needed vet care or medicines.
The infants don't need much space, since they are too young to have access to entire home anyway and some aren't even old enough to toddle more than a few inches before falling down. Many will need to be kept contained in a large crate or cage most of the time for their safely, so people in small homes can find room for the infants. It's only a few weeks of your time until the kittens are old enough to be adopted. But it can mean a life span for the kittens, who otherwise would likely be killed at the shelter, since most shelters are unable to meet the needs of orphaned infant kittens.
Information on caring for orphaned kittens:
Even if you are unable to trap and neuter adult stray or feral cats, unable to take in stray tame cats, and want to keep them out of your yard, you can donate money, time or supplies to shelters and rescue groups so they can continue to help homeless cats and expand their efforts. Shelters and rescue groups are urgently in need of donations, but not just of money. Some groups have requests for newspapers and old towels- things you would likely throw away.
You can make a difference!
There are so many homeless cats, it sometimes seems that helping just one or two cats won't matter. But it does to those cats you can help. If you get all the homeless cats you can spayed or neutered, the suffering of new generations of street cats is prevented. Peruse the Rescues page to how much of a difference you can make.
You can change a cat from this to this
The Humane Society of the United States has information and resources to help people help feral cats at:
Shadow Cats: Tales from New York City's Animal Underground
by Janet Jensen
A combination of suspenseful drama, personal journey, and expose of inner city feral cats and those who love them.
This book describes a couples' involvment with feral cats in their area, including TNR.
Urban Tails: Inside the Hidden World of Alley Cats
by Sara Kneely
A chronicle of both the joys and the tragedies of urban feral cats through amazing photographs and thoughtful text.